The passages of poetry presented below are taken from Taliessin Through Logres. It’s a long narrative poem set in King Arthur’s Camelot and written by the brilliant but little-known Charles Williams, an English writer of the last century who derives what small portion of fame he still has from his friendship with C. S. Lewis.
Admittedly, a long and often impenetrable work of modernist Arthurian poetry is not a place where most would look for insights into the nature of money and the market, but I have still yet to come across a more profound passage of writing about the moral dimensions of economic activity than the few stanzas from Taliessin Through Logres that are quoted below.
Since these passages are taken from the middle of the poem, a short introduction is necessary. The titular figure, Taliessin, is the bard or minstrel at Camelot. With his lyre in hand, he sings songs and tells stories for the entertainment and edification of the court. The narrative is presented to the reader through his eyes. In the scene below, Taliessin and the king’s counsellors are gathered together to discuss the merits and drawbacks of minting a coined currency to replace the pre-existing feudal barter economy of Camelot. Kay, King Arthur’s steward, speaks first, and makes the case for the new Royal mint enthusiastically.
They laid the coins before the council.
Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics, said:
‘Good; these cover the years and the miles
and talk one style’s dialects to London and Omsk.
Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.’
Money, as Kay notes, acts as a means or mechanism by which people can look after one another by supplying goods and services across greater distances and longer periods of time than had previously been possible. Because it standardizes and quantifies the qualitatively distinct and unique economic activities in which people engage, it makes trade and exchange easy, fluid, and dynamic. It functions as a universally understood standard and language by which we all can measure and keep track of the ways in which we take care of each other in a free economy. It’s in this respect that “Money is the medium of exchange.”
Taliessin, however is wary. (The “dragons” referred to in the following passage are the minted images of dragons imprinted on the gold coins in question. “Logres,” meanwhile, is Williams’s needlessly obscure name for Britain.)
Taliessin’s look darkened; his hand shook
while he touched the dragons; he said ‘We had a good thought.
Sir, if you made verse you would doubt symbols.
I am afraid of the little loosed dragons.
When the means are autonomous, they are deadly; when words
escape from verse they hurry to rape souls;
when sensation slips from intellect, expect the tyrant;
the brood of carriers levels the good they carry.
We have taught our images to be free; are we glad?
Are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to Logres?’
“When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.” In many ways, this is the key phrase of this entire scene. As Kay noted, money exists as a “medium of exchange,” by which human beings evaluate and keep track of the goods and services they bestow upon one another. It exists to make personal transactions more legible, measurable, and efficient, so that “events move now in a smoother control / than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.” But Taliessin’s crucial insight is that money, which begins as a means for making the material dimension of human relationships more fluid and dynamic, can easily become unmoored from this interpersonal end and become a different and impersonal end in and of itself. People will pursue money for its own sake rather than using it as a mechanism for the mutual care of oneself for one’s neighbor and of one’s neighbor for oneself. Money stops being something that facilitates personal relationships and becomes itself the impersonal object of each economic interaction, for the sake of which human beings use one another in a similarly impersonal way.
I wrote about the way in which money dissolves human relationships and our consciousness of dependence on one another in the context of free trade earlier this year:
Money allows us to purchase the work of others without giving any thought to them as human beings. Unlike our ancestors in their primitive townships, we rarely have to meet face-to-face the people who’ve invented, built, shipped, or supplied our goods. We do not know their names, or their families, or their daily struggles. No relationship has to be built before an exchange can take place. Simply agree on a price, and you can have any good you wish without taking a second thought for the human being involved on the other side of the transaction. In this way, money makes us feel more independent than we actually are. Each of us senses the hold that it has over our fellows. We know that if we bid highly enough we can buy ourselves out of the time-consuming labor of building relationships. Money’s kind of like magic in that way. It gives us a set of rituals to perform and promises that if we do so we’ll be able to wield power over others. The illusion is created that having enough money to buy something is the equivalent of knowing how to make it yourself. Gratitude for the anonymous men and women who make up the supply chain rarely makes its way into our consciousness.
By paying those who supply us with goods and services an agreed-upon price, we feel we have bought ourselves out of any debt of personal gratitude we owe them. Instead of using money as a thoroughfare of mutual gratitude and relationship in a free economy, we use it as a substitute for these things, because more often than not there is a tacit acknowledgement between buyer and seller that both value the money and goods changing hands more than they value each other. This is what happens when a means of human relationship (money) becomes autonomous — an end in and of itself.
Because of the way in which the allure of money dissolves our consciousness of dependence upon one another, economies with a greater division of labor that depend more and more upon a standardized currency to facilitate transactions tend to create citizens who feel more and more isolated from one another. This is the paradox of a free economy: The more dependent we are on one another for our material wellbeing, the more independent we feel from others. Alexis de Tocqueville had already put his finger on this paradox as long ago as the mid 19th century. As the political philosopher and historian Larry Siedentop notes:
Tocqueville anticipates a paradox which governed the later French sociologist Durkheim’s work — the paradox that as a market economy and the division of labor develop, the sense of personal independence grows, whereas in a more primitive or subsistence economy, where men do in fact depend less on co-operation, they have a stronger sense of dependence on others.
Faced with the dilemma posed by Taliessin, the Archbishop then speaks, proposing a way of thinking about money and markets that keeps wealth in check as a thoroughfare of relationship:
The Archbishop answered the lords;
his words went up through a slope of calm air:
‘Might may take symbols and folly make treasure,
and greed bid God, who hides himself for man’s pleasure
by occasion, hide himself essentially: this abides —
that the everlasting house the soul discovers
is always another’s; we must lose our own ends;
we must always live in the habitation of our lovers,
my friend’s shelter for me, mine for him.
This is the way of this world in the day of that other’s;
make yourselves friends by means of the riches of iniquity,
for the wealth of the self is the health of the self exchanged.
What saith Heracleitus? — and what is the City’s breath? —
dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.
Money is a medium of exchange.’
By obscuring the personal and relational dimension of life and of the material world, money can indeed swamp the world with avarice, materialism, and unconstrained consumption. Greed, as Williams writes, may “bid God, who hides himself for man’s pleasure by occasion, hide himself essentially,” by transforming the material world from a personal gift and disclosure of God and one’s neighbor into a standing reserve of as-yet unexploited wealth to be used for the aggrandizement of the self. But this needn’t be so. The Archbishop points towards the possibility of a genuinely moral marketplace by emphasizing cooperation, exchange, and a grateful and acknowledged dependence of ourselves on our neighbors and of our neighbors on ourselves. “The everlasting house the soul discovers / is always anothers,” he says. “We must lose our own ends; / we must always live in the habitation of our lovers, / my friend’s shelter for me, mine for him.”
This is a different model of market economics than the one we are habitually used to, which emphasizes competition, self-reliance, and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. In truth, the Archbishop’s understanding of markets is superior to this model in purely descriptive, as well as moral, terms. Cooperation and dependency are far more important factors in the functioning of a market economy than are competition and self-reliance. But the autonomy of money from human relationships has blinded us to this fact. How often does a real sense of the breathtaking scale of cooperation and contribution by our fellow men and women across the globe to the delicate and complex supply chains that redound to our household goods ever impinge on our consciousness? Where is our gratitude to them and our personal concern for their advancement, their flourishing, and the elevation of their station? It is dissolved by the money that interposes itself between us and them, robbing free economies from the sense of mutual gift and gratitude that would permeate our society if we could make money the medium of exchange as the Archbishop advocates rather than the end of exchange we have made it ourselves. If we could tame the god of mammon and make it the servant of our neighbors rather than the master of ourselves, perhaps we could breathe the “City’s breath” unpolluted for the first time and see with scale-fallen eyes what the true nature of markets has always been: not dog-eat-dog Darwinism, but “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.”